Did Trump Collude With Russia? 6 Clues That Hint At Ties To The Kremlin

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Special counsel Robert Mueller unsealed on Monday the first indictments of his investigation into possible collusion between President Trump's campaign and Russia. While Trump supporters were quick to point out the absence of a "smoking gun" proving collusion, Mueller's investigation is far from complete. And the indictment of former Trump campaign officials, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, only adds to the expanding collection of clues hinting at ties between Russia and Trump's campaign.

Though the 2016 election was the first time millions of Americans heard about Russia's attempts to influence U.S. democratic outcomes, it was not a first for the Kremlin. Russia has been engaging in election-subverting tactics in the U.S. since the 1960s, with well-known disinformation campaigns against President Kennedy and President Reagan. In the more recent past, Russia has tried to disrupt elections in neighboring European countries. Intelligence officials in Germany, France, Great Britan and the Netherlands have all reported social media "fake news" campaigns run by Russian operatives with the understood aim of influencing elections.

However, this might be the first time Russia has achieved such extraordinary success in influencing an American election. And there's a hefty and growing pile of facts linking Trump's campaign with the Kremlin.

1Paul Manafort: Former Trump Campaign Chair Indicted In Mueller's Investigation

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Manafort began working with Trump's campaign in March 2016, and ran the operation as campaign chairman over the summer, from June to August. But widespread media reports on Manafort's hugely profitable business dealings with pro-Russian former Ukrainian president Viktor F. Yanukovych eventually led Manafort to step down from his role in Trump's campaign.

Manafort had previously worked as a lobbyist for Yanukovych, and Mueller has indicted him, among other charges, for money laundering millions of dollars Manafort was paid to represent and promote the interests Yanukovych, who led Ukraine away from the West towards Russia. (Yanukovych was ousted from power in 2014 in a wave of unrest fueled largely by his pro-Russian policies.)

Some have pointed out Manafort's role in aiding Yanukovych (as well as Manafort's other ties to Russian and Russian-connected individuals) predated his work on Trump's campaign. That was in fact the line of argument made Monday by White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Then again, others have argued it seems unlikely that a campaign chairman would be hired so indiscriminately, or that said chair would simply ignore his own business interests just because he's in charge of an election campaign.

2George Papadopoulos: Former Trump Campaign Adviser Admitted Lying To FBI About Russian Contacts

For many observers, the most intriguing and potentially damaging indictment revealed Monday was that of George Papadopoulos. The 30-year-old former campaign adviser pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with people claiming to be associated with the Russian government.

But as Harry Litman delineates in The New York Times, there are several potentially damning revelations in the Papadopoulos arrest. Though he pleaded guilty in early October, he has been working as a "proactive collaborator" with the Mueller investigation ever since. That could mean Papadopoulos wore a wire, possibly recording conversations that could lead to further indictments of other Trump-related officials.

Additionally, it appears that at least one high-ranking Trump campaign official understood the importance of keeping any Russian contact low-profile. In an email response to Papadopoulos offering to connect Russian operatives with Trump's campaign officials, Manafort wrote: "We need someone to communicate that D.T. is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”

Papadopoulos' indictment also makes clear that Trump's campaign knew of Russia's hacking of the DNC and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta's email accounts long before the media did. Podesta's email was hacked in March 2016, and Papadopoulos appears to have been offered access to those stolen emails in April. That's well before the media reported on it, and months ahead of WikiLeaks publishing the documents.

3Changes Made To RNC Platform That Favored Putin

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When it came to influencing official GOP policy, candidate Donald Trump was not overly involved. But his team advocated for one significant alteration to the Republicans' platform during the RNC: a change to the Republican Party's official stance on providing arms to Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin invaded the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014, and shortly thereafter "annexed" the region back into Russia. GOP politicians had loudly decried that power grab, and supported providing Ukrainians with weapons to ward off further aggression. But according to two RNC officials, Trump's campaign insisted that the platform be changed, asking that language allowing for the provision of weapons to Ukraine be removed.

The biggest winner from that platform alteration? Vladimir Putin.

4Michael Flynn: Trump's Former National Security Adviser Resigned For Reasons Related To Russia

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Retired Gen. Michael Flynn was the first of Trump's cabinet to be let go, holding his position as national security adviser just 24 days before resigning. Flynn's exit from the administration came after he provided Vice President Mike Pence with "incomplete information" about a phone conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. That phone call occurred before Trump took office, and in it Flynn discussed the potential White House sanctions on Russia for its election hacking.

Flynn also traveled to Russia in 2015, appearing on the network Russia Today (RT), an outlet with the dubious distinction of being a propaganda mouthpiece for Putin. (RT is reportedly funded by the Kremlin.) Flynn was paid $45,000 for his troubles, and attended a gala dinner following his television appearance. He was seated right next to Putin.  

5Donald Trump Jr.: Email Details Meeting With Russian Lawyer To Get 'Dirt' On Hillary Clinton

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In a June 2016 email, publicist Rod Goldstone reached out to Donald Trump Jr. to propose a meeting with a Russian government attorney who claimed to have incriminating information about Hillary Clinton. "This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump," Goldstone wrote to Trump Jr., who wrote back: "If it's what you say I love it."

The supposed "government attorney" turned out to be Natalia Veselnitskaya, and the meeting eventually took place at Trump Tower. However, both Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya denied that she offered the campaign any actual information on Clinton.

6Carter Page: Former Trump Foreign Policy Adviser Left Campaign Due To Slew Of Russian Links

Carter Page worked briefly as a foreign policy adviser to Trump's campaign. Page lived in Russia from 2004 to 2007, and has ties to Gazprom, Russia's state-owned energy behemoth.

In July 2016, Page traveled to Moscow and met with Igor Sechin, a close adviser of Putin who happens to head up Rosneft, Russia's massive state-owned oil company. As Joshua Yaffa points out at The New Yorker, "Meetings like that don’t happen unless the Kremlin takes its interlocutor seriously; in Trump’s improvised campaign, figuring out who was serious and who was a pretender was no easy business."

Russia appeared to be taking whatever route possible, including both witting and unwitting accomplices, leading to influence in the Trump campaign. Page's recent appearance with Chris Hayes on MSNBC stoked further media attention. Page admitted he "may" have discussed Russia with Papadopoulos.

The big word in this outline of connections is "collusion." Did Trump's campaign actively work with a hostile foreign power to influence an American election? The legal answer to that question may not yet be answered. But for plenty of Americans, the confluence of Russia's infiltration of social media, the president's own history of going easy on Putin, and especially the number of campaign associates linked to the Kremlin may provide enough clues to draw their own conclusions.